The System Is Sicko 

Michael Moore takes aim at the U.S. health-care industry.

Best known for rabble-rousing, polarizing films such as Roger & Me and Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore isn't a documentarian; he's a polemicist, a pamphleteer. He's Thomas Paine for a less literate, more entertainment-focused age of political discourse.

Moore's new film, Sicko, is somewhat gentler than his reputation. The film takes aim at the American health-care system, which no one — save perhaps insurance company CEOs — thinks is working well. This should make Sicko a nonpartisan film, and aside from a few unavoidable shots at George W. Bush, it is. But because Moore made it and because his baseball-cap-clad, unshaven visage dominates, it won't be taken that way.

That's become one of Moore's problems. In building his films around his own celebrity, Moore has tapped into a larger audience than any other nonfiction filmmaker with the exception of PBS institution Ken Burns. But this strategy also has limited Moore's audience to people predisposed to agree with him. For this reason, Moore's films rarely function as persuasively as he'd desire.

Sicko opens with the kind of cheap shot Moore can't seem to avoid: the infamous clip of Bush speechifying about gynecology. But far better and more pertinent is a later clip of Bush in a town-hall meeting with a woman who explains that she's working three jobs to make ends meet. Bush's uncomprehending response: "Three jobs? That's uniquely American, isn't it? Fantastic."

Even more revealing is a bit of audiotape Moore has dug up from the Nixon White House that purports to track the birth of the current system: an aide introducing the president to a new health-care organization dreamed up by a presidential associate. "The less care they give, the more money they make," the aide explains. "Not bad," Nixon says in appreciation. Thus, HMOs are born.

But it isn't only Republicans who draw Moore's ire. Sicko portrays Hillary Clinton as someone who has morphed from a crusader for universal care to yet another paid-off tool of the insurance companies, along with, Sicko asserts, the majority of the American government.

At the crux of Moore's movie is a comparison of the U.S. system — where most citizens are either uninsured or poorly insured by private corporations driven by the profit motive — to those in Canada, Great Britain, and France, countries whose governments provide universal health care to citizens. American political operatives and talking heads have demonized "socialized medicine," but in visiting hospitals and interviewing average citizens in these countries, Moore depicts systems that provide much better care than our own. The people Moore interviews in these countries can barely comprehend the U.S. model.

If there's a flaw in Moore's argument, it's that — per usual — he's more a feeler than a thinker. He exaggerates these societies, presenting them as paradises without poverty or inequality, where the government will happily come over to help you with the laundry. Nor does he do enough to anticipate and respond to obvious questions and counterarguments.

How can these countries provide universal care without taxing their citizens to death, many viewers may wonder. Moore partially addresses this question by interviewing a French doctor. The difference between him and his American counterpart? He lives in a million dollar home instead of a $5 million home. He has one nice car, not three. The message here is this: If the most fortunate would settle for comfort rather than extravagance and private insurance companies were taken out of the mix, we could afford to provide excellent care for everyone. But Moore doesn't make this argument as sharply as he could.


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